Oregon State’s Decision to Drop Tristan Taormino is About Sexual Shame

As a lot of people have heard, Oregon State University dropped Tristan Taormino from the lineup for the Modern Sex conference last week. It’s an unfortunate situation that highlights many of the effects of sexual shame.

The irony of my still being on the schedule while Tristan was removed isn’t lost on me. As Toby Hill-Meyer points out, I also have porn connections. They’re not as direct as Tristan’s, but I work at Good Vibrations and we sell porn. We also make porn, although it’s not like most of what comes out of LA, and I train the GV staff on how to talk with customers about porn. So yes, I definitely have connections to porn. But I think that there’s more to unpack around this situation and I think that it comes down to sexual shame.

The main response from the university is that since OSU is a state school, they get their funding from the taxpayers and so they need to avoid using that money for “controversial” speakers. Now, I’m sure that this is at least a piece of the puzzle, as this commenter pointed out here and here. I’m still not convinced that part of the motivation for this decision isn’t because someone in the administration got squicked. But even if we take it at face value and accept that this is only about having a “controversial” speaker be paid out of the wrong fund, it’s still about sexual shame.

It’s about shame because the school is worried that they’ll be punished for starting a discussion about sex. Silencing a conversation that makes you uncomfortable or that you think is “inappropriate” is usually about shame. (That’s separate from saying that a conversation needs to happen at a better time or place, which is about boundaries.) And I have to wonder what it is about a presentation called “Claiming Your Sexual Power” that makes it more controversial than, say, having Playboy recruit on your campus. I’m sure that the school didn’t pay to bring Playboy in, but it sure is interesting to look at which things the administrators are worried will cause a backlash.

Elizabeth, over at Sex in The Public Square, had some great things to say about this:

Regardless how you feel about pornography, this should trouble all of us. Colleges and universities self-censor out of fear. OSU, like other public institutions of higher education, is no doubt facing serious budget cuts. Anything that causes the state’s legislature to further restrict their funds is cause for concern. In this case, though no complaint appears to have been made, the University chose to pre-emptively cancel a potentially controversial speaker despite her expertise in the context of the Modern Sex conference.When experts are rejected because their work is controversial, we should be worried not only about sexual freedom but also about academic freedom more broadly. There are places where evolution is the hot-button issue, or where the politics of Israel and Palestine is the main cause of political concern. We can’t ignore this instance of self-censorship simply because it has to do with sexuality. Once “we can’t afford to offend the legislature” becomes a widely accepted rationale for canceling or refusing to fund programs, we can expect to see many more threats to the foundation of public higher education in general.

This is also about shame because what makes Tristan “controversial” is that she

  1. makes porn;
  2. has performed in porn;
  3. doesn’t have academic credentials; and
  4. is a woman who talks about sex.

Any of these things might make someone who doesn’t know Tristan think that she doesn’t have the chops to be a keynote speaker at a conference, especially the bit about the academic credentials. But really, the only way that a PhD would make her less controversial would be if she studied and wrote and lectured about porn without actually being a porn producer. (And for the record, she totally has the chops.)

I’m confident that part of why I’m still on the schedule is that I’ve never performed in porn or produced it. Personally, I don’t see why that automatically makes me more eligible to speak at a conference, but that seems to be how things are. Meh. As I recently wrote, one of the rules of shame is that the rules don’t apply to everyone equally. That certainly seems to be what’s going on here.

I’m also pretty sure that part of it is that I have a doctorate and I’m certified as a sex educator. To an extent, these sorts of credentials are shorthand for “respectability”, at least for some people. And while I certainly worked hard to earn them and I’m proud of my accomplishments, some people see them as a signal that I’m better qualified to talk than others. This is pretty common- Dr. Laura’s PhD is in physiology but she doesn’t let that stop her from talking about all sorts of unrelated stuff. At least I mostly limit my teaching to topics that are related to my doctorate. But then, sex is a pretty big area.

I’m also curious to know how much of OSU’s response was influenced by gender roles. Women who talk about sex, especially their own sexual experiences, are likely to be slut-shamed or seen as less important than men. Men in sex education are often seen as suspect, especially if they’re cisgender and heterosexual. (If you don’t believe me, take a look at the gender breakdown among sex advice columnists. Or imagine what would have happened if Dr. Ruth had been Dr. Henry.) That breaks down when you’re in the rarefied atmosphere of research, science, or academia, but it creates a weird dynamic in which women are more likely to go into the field of sex education and are more likely to be able to make a living at it, yet they are still much more likely to be shamed or invalidated for it than men. So I can’t help but wonder how much this came into play.

Unlike many sex educators, I don’t talk about what kinds of sex I personally do or enjoy. It’s not that I think there’s anything wrong with that- in fact, I think that the world needs people who talk about their sexual practices because it models comfort with sexual topics. And at the same time, I’ve also taught classes on sexuality at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley (for clergy of various denominations), John F Kennedy University (for students in the somatic psychology program), and the California Institute for Integral Studies (as a continuing education course for therapists). Part of how these opportunities come my way is that I don’t talk about my sex life in public. That’s not the only reason that I keep my personal life to a need-to-know basis, but it’s one of the big ones. Having a PhD wouldn’t be enough to outweigh the stain of publicly talking about my sex life, and I don’t even need to deal with the slut-shaming that my female colleagues do.

Unfortunately, this is a choice that a lot of sex educators are faced with. We can be out of the closet, in which case, certain opportunities are lost. Or we can choose to be partially in the closet in order to get teaching gigs, and hope we don’t get outed. And that is because of sex-negativity, sexual shame, and erotophobia.

The irony here is that keeping ourselves in the closet doesn’t create objectivity, even if that’s the intention. The traditional pursuit of academic objectivity tends to obscure bias and confuses being factual about observations with being distant from the phenomenon or community being described. All distance ensures is distance; it does not ensure objectivity.1 Some folks have proposed an emphasis on trustworthiness and authenticity, rather than objectivity2. Both of these terms presuppose a relationship between the speaker and the listener; by bringing myself to your attention, I offer you the opportunity to decide where I stand.

While this kind of authenticity often works well for sex educators who do workshops like these, it gets in the way if you want to get a gig at a university. And it’s especially hard at a public university, which clearly creates an even bigger privilege for students at private colleges.

The upshot of all of this is that it doesn’t really matter whether the underlying motivation is an administrator’s squeamishness or an anticipation of a backlash from the legislators who fund the school. It’s still comes down to a reaction to sexual shame. And it’s especially unfortunate for this to happen to a conference that this laudable mission:

This conference is organized and led by OSU students with faculty and staff support. We hope to challenge participants to examine the individual and collective struggles inherent to the entanglements of sexuality with the social and cultural systems of sex, gender, race, and class.  The emphasis of this conference will be on communicating and understanding diverse perspectives around sexuality through workshops, guided facilitations, lectures, and film screenings.

I’d love to see Tristan back on the schedule. She has lots of valuable insight to offer and she’s a fantastic speaker. And whether the root of the issue is the erotophobia of someone in the OSU administration or simply a (not entirely unfounded) fear that a legislator’s sex-negativity will come back to haunt the school, I think they need to get some chutzpah and deal with this better.

Update 3/15/12: After the events at OSU took place, I was interviewed by Lacey Mamak as part of her research for a case study that describes what happened so that researchers and educators can use this situation to stimulate discussion. It’s definitely worth reading.

1 Scriven, M. (1998). The meaning of bias. Paper presented at the Stake’s Symposium on Educational Evaluation, Urbana, IL.

2 Lincoln, Y. S., & Guba, E. G. (2000). Paradigmatic controversies, contradictions, and emerging confluences. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research (2nd ed., pp. 163-188). Thousand Oak, California: Sage.

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